Press Column

"And is it true? And is it true Ö" Asked the splash in the Catholic Herald last week; "Not it bloody well isnít" replied their lawyers, when confronted with Steven Batesís libel writ, and the Christmas issue will carry a fulsome and prominent apology for the leader which accused him of making up the story that Archbishop Ward of Cardiff had been sacked by the Vatican. There are also "substantial" damages involved. It took less than a week for the Herald to cave in. So far as I know, this is the first time any religious journalist has sued anyone since Clifford Longley sued the Times, after it had sacked him, for suggesting that he was an agent of a Catholic conspiracy.

The Guardian newspaper did not cover the story, because Alan Rusbridger disapproved of the suit being bought at all. But the paperís web site had a comment piece from Steve Bates containing a dig at his own editor, as well as at Oddie: "Finally, I decided there was no alternative but to sue. This was not something I wanted to do - and it was a course I was counselled against by Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, who does not believe in suing in principle and is waging a campaign - which I support - to reform the libel laws. He did not write to the Catholic Herald or make any public statement on my behalf expressing his confidence in the accuracy of the article I had written."

I donít know how large a bill a libel lawyer can run up in a week; but the costs and damages the Herald must pay came to more than £15,000. Bates says he will give part of his damages to the priests of the Cardiff diocese ó who are meant to have been conspiring against their Archbishop, in Oddieís version; and some to campaigners for Catholic women priests. Most will go to pay off the loan on his car. I hope it doesnít start swerving to the right whenever it nears an oncoming heretic.

For years one has longed for a story which would make clear that there is a difference between Vicars and Rectors. If the shenanigans at St Maryís, Melton Mowbray, do not do the trick nothing will. There, the Vicar has run off with the Rectorís wife. In the Telegraph, it was even better: "Rock band vicar runs off with rectorís wife", since the Vicar in question fronts a rock band called "Clerical Errer". It was nicely placed beside a story of twelve non-rock band choristers in Devon, who would not do that sort of thing at all, party because their spokesman is 87 and their youngest member is 60. They have all resigned rather than sing "all this pop stuff which has to be sung in unison." Back in the randy rocking vicar story Most papers had a verbatim quote from a gossipy parishioner: "Apparently it has been going on for a long time ó months and months. Everyone was very shocked and we are having a parish meeting on Thursday to discuss it. We are very sad because the vicar was well-liked and there are four young children all aged under ten involved."

It turns out that the youngest of the four children is in fact ten. Not that makes things much less miserable, but it does show what church gossip is worth. The Mail ran the couple down to earth; and they did the obligatory "Hand-in-hand and proclaiming their love" sequence, first made famous by the Roman Catholic bishop of Argyll. The standfirst made them "Churchman and the rectorís wife" ó perhaps because readers would not see anything wrong in the vicar and the rectorís wife. The cynical reader would naturally suppose that this story was got by offering the usual alternatives of a large bribe or a large threat, but the story suggests otherwise: "The vicar, whose appetite for publicity was whetted by his activities with the religious roc band clerical Errer and a TV appearance in which he compared the footballer Michael Owen to Jesus, was not shying away from the latest attention despite a request from his church to stay silent."

At least this conflict appears to have been settled without physical violence. What will happen in parishes where all of the clerical team have been on self-defence courses and trained in martial arts? In another useful distinction, the Guardian explained these as "Crouching vicar, hidden verger", though the best photograph appeared in the Times , where Fr Paul Andrew, of St Johnís Church Hammersmith posed in bare feet, pyjama trousers, dressing gown, black shirt, dog collar and boxing gloves. In the Daily Telegraph he looked even odder, dressed in a sort of Cardinalís outfit, as favoured by the late Brian Brindley, with a cloak fastened by a gold chain at the neck, and a fist extended at the photographer. I never thought Iíd see the day when Buffy the Vampire Slayer does high camp better than the Church of England.

Iím getting tired of writing that Jonathan Petre has got another good Sunday story. But he had two this week. The first was a poll on the celebration of Christmas this year, which showed all sorts of things, most of them contradictory. It showed that 80% of the country would celebrate Christmas with a special meal. Is that more remarkable than that 20% wonít? It showed that about as many people (26%) will go to church on Christmas Eve, or Day as went to the pantomime (25%). This seems a grotesque over-estimate of pantomime attendance. According the press release, the survey also shows that 43% of the population will celebrate Christmas with a Christian religious service. Then there was the announcement that this government will appoint someone described as a "Faith Tsar". Considering that "Tsar" is simply the Russianisation of "Caesar" it is a delicious irony that the most devout Prime Minister in recent history should appoint a Caesar to ensure that religions give the Government their due.

Happy Christmas. Iím off to be one of the 4% who spend it abroad.

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